The freshman 15 is a myth — it’s more like “the freshman1,” if anything, and young adults enrolled in college actually tend to gain less than their peers who opt not to go to college.
It’s not surprising that teens gain weight after high school
And yet gaining weight that first year at college is still something many students—and sometimes their parents—worry about. With meal plans serving up unlimited buffet style food, with high school sports no longer, with hours that used to be spent up and moving now spent sitting and studying or writing papers…it’s not surprising that a student might gain a couple of pounds, nor is it any cause for concern.
But what if your teen goes away to college and gains that mythological freshman 15—and then some? What if they put on so much weight that you become genuinely worried for their physical health? What if they were already overweight before they left for college, and the added weight is only more cause for concern? You may worry about the impact excessive weight gain may have on their social life and their ability to physically navigate the world without stares and judgment. Maybe you look back on your own lifelong struggle with weight and desperately want something different for your child.
What should parents consider before talking to a teen about weight gain
You may be considering confronting them about their weight gain—in the least confrontational way possible, of course, with your love and concern at the forefront. If only you could gently motivate them to take control of their health. Maybe you could manage to get them to agree to a doctor’s appointment, just to be sure there are no underlying health problems.
But what if, aside from the weight gain, the doctor gives your adult child a clean bill of health? What if your adult child seems uninterested in doing anything to change their eating or exercise habits?
If you’ve spoken with your child and been to the doctor, and your child still doesn’t seem to show any interest in changing up their routine to try to lose the weight, here is what you can do to help motivate them:
That’s right—nothing. At least, not as pertains to their weight. Once your child reaches adulthood and you no longer control the food that goes into the refrigerator and onto the dining room table, there is very little you can do or say by way of “encouragement” that wouldn’t simply end up creating a rift between you.
Because, here’s the thing: You child is an adult now. They have sufficient cognitive function to recognize that they have put on weight. They can see themselves in the mirror and feel the snug fit of their clothes. They probably also know that healthy eating habits coupled with exercise can lead to weight loss. They are also probably aware that excessive weight gain along with a sedentary lifestyle has been linked to type 2 diabetes and other health issues.
They know all of these things. And they probably already feel bad about having gained weight. You piping in with even the gentlest, most loving suggestion for how to be “healthier” is very likely only going to make them feel worse. Even if your intentions are completely pure, when you suggest ideas for how to lose weight, your child might hear that they’d be easier to love if they weren’t fat.
So if your kid hasn’t specifically asked for your help, that’s probably because they don’t actually want it. There really isn’t anything you can do or say will make them change their habits in a health-driven, rather than shame-driven way.
Dr. Ken Ginsburg’s advice for parents about their college student’s weight gain
But that doesn’t change the fact that you are a genuinely worried parent who wants only the best for your child. So, is there anything you can do?
“There is nothing more protective in our children’s lives than our unconditional love,” Dr. Ken Ginsburg, Professor of Pediatrics and Co-Founder of the Center for Parent and Teen Communications at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, tells Grown and Flown. “It is vitally important during times of transition when they might not consider themselves adequate.”
Dr. Ginsburg explains that it’s common for young people going away to college to change their eating habits when they go away to college. Not only that, but the added stress of being away from home and having to adjust to a new environment and the pressures of college life can lead to changes in weight.
“Focusing on the weight — which they are likely well aware of — can backfire,” Ginsburg says. “It can trigger shame and worsen both the problem (weight) and the root of the problem (poor adjustment).”
Dr. Ginsburg says that during what may be a difficult adjustment period for your child, “nothing matters more than your transmitting the message that they are loved just as they are and always will be.” A parent’s message of concern, though meant in the most loving way, “is never solid when preceded by an ‘even though . . .’”
Of course, we do want to be keeping an eye out for signs of excessive stress or depression in our kids, so focusing on emotional well being is fine. Dr. Ginsburg also pointed out that an excessive loss of weight could be signs of a restrictive eating disorder and in that case, you should seek help from a professional healthcare provider as soon as you can.
It’s understandable to worry about your child when you see their body changing before your eyes. But if your adult child is otherwise checking out as healthy, it won’t do your child or your relationship with your child any good to harp on their weight. Simply love them, exactly as they are in this moment, and let them know you are there for them no matter what. Demonstrate that unconditional support with your actions.
And, if your child ever does work off the weight, it will be because they made a personal commitment and followed through on it, not because someone else guilted them into it.
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Grown and Flown: The book – essential guide for raising teens and college students.